My greatest race - John Watson

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1983 US GP (West)

He started 22nd on the grid but, with the right tyres, a positive mental attitude and a svengali in the pits, John Watson was able to pull off one of the most unlikely victories in Grand Prix history.

Long Beach in 1983 was my greatest and most memorable Grand Prix, and it’s memorable because of three elements; the build-up to the event, the race itself, and then the conclusion. It also turned out to be my last Formula One victory.

At the start of that year Ron Dennis had said to Niki Lauda and to me, “Pm fed up spending so many millions of dollars to make competitive race cars. You two lazy blokes should make the same effort.” He decided that Niki’s physio Willi Dungl would become a full team member, and Niki, myself and the team would have to pay a third of the costs each.

I got my first official Dungl treatment in Brazil, and it was a revelation. He was the architect of the first really scientific approach to the physical, dietary and psychological training of a racing driver. Niki had benefited from it before, and I had seen it, but never actually been a part of it.

After the Brazilian GP Niki, Keke Rosberg and I were due to do a promotional tour of South America for Marlboro. But some of the Fleet Street boys heard about it, tackled me and said, “John, are you seriously intending to go to Argentina some nine months after our boys were shot and tortured in the Falkland Islands? This is a great story John, it wouldn’t be very good for you…”

In effect it was blackmail. I thought, I don’t need this, I’m not going. I explained that to Marlboro, who were understanding, although it did disrupt their plans they sent Andrea de Cesaris in my place.

So instead of me going on this week long tour of South America, I flew straight up to California and Long Beach. There I had the full attention of Will Dungl for about a week, before Niki and the rest of the tribe arrived back from South America. As that week went on, my physical condition improved. I was never a natural runner, but I began to run better, and all the things that basically equate to fitness were improving, like heart rate and recovery rate.

Niki eventually arrived back and joined in, but that trip had been an arduous one, and I think he’d picked up hepatitis or something of that nature. It wasn’t affecting him immediately, but he wasn’t 100 per cent. And I was. During the second week, my strength increased – not just physical strength, but mental strength – and that’s where so much of a driver’s performance comes from. I felt I’d grown over that two week period between Brazil and going to practice in Long Beach.

At that point we were running Michelin tyres and they were more suitable to the kind of energy that a Renault turbo car would put through the rear wheels. In Long Beach, where part of the surface was concrete, we just couldn’t get the things to work, because the DFV-powered MP4/1C was extremely light on its tyres – especially when in qualifying configuration. The inevitable conclusion was that we qualified 22nd and 23rd. It drove Ron and John Barnard almost to distraction – always blame it on the drivers, as they say.

Then, as usual on Sunday morning, with a full fuel load on board, the times were there and I was flying. We were putting energy into the tyre, which was generating heat. Now I could really drive the car, steer it anywhere on the race track. There was a particular Michelin, the ‘OS’, which was always more consistent for me, whereas Niki always sought to take advantage from something which was marginally quicker, but was not so adaptable to the circumstances and conditions.

He had potentially slightly more grip than me, but I had the mental strength plus the knowledge that my good old ’05’ Michelin would last the race. I could stay on it all the way.

Niki got ahead of me at the start of the race, and basically the pair of us moved up through the field in tandem. Some dropped out, and some we overtook. I felt extremely strong, and at no point was I going to let Niki get away. I felt I was a better street fighter than Niki, a fact borne out to some extent by my win in Detroit a year earlier. He was driving his heart out, but I shadowed his every move, and every time he made an overtaking manoeuvre I pushed through as well, to prevent him getting away. It wasn’t that I was racing him any more than anyone else, but when you’re behind another car, if you lose momentum, you then stall out.

At some point we were running third or fourth, and I’d decided that there was no way he was going to beat me. Eventually I slid past; I’d come from quite a long way behind to do it. Niki was also aware that once I was on an overtaking manoeuvre I was on my way, and there was nothing stopping me.

Once he was overtaken, he didn’t come back. He almost acknowledged that that was going to be the result which was another aspect of Niki’s pragmatic mind. And then I took Jacques Laffite for the lead; he tried to narrow the angle into the corner, but with the same kind of confidence I’d shown in Detroit, I did a positive, well executed overtaking move. I think overtaking is as much in the head as anywhere else.

So I won the race, with Niki second. It was a big shock; John and Ron, plus John Hogan and Paddy McNally of Marlboro, looked like they’d been caught with their trousers round their ankles or something. It took some time to react to the reality that we’d won the race from this lowly grid position. But Willi had seen the potential, the power he was generating in me. He didn’t tell me before the race, but he said afterwards that he knew I was going to win. He could see what was happening to me there was this svengali-like operation going on.

ln the press conference I remember being asked “What tyre do you use?” And I said “I chose the OS.” Which was a naive answer… When I got back to England a few days later, there were thunderclouds over the McLaren HQ. I walked in and Ron said “John’s very, very upset.” Motoring News was put down in front of me; the headline was about me choosing the tyre.

The problem was that nobody chooses tyres except the technical director. It’s his decision. In answering that question, “I chose to run on the OS”, I may have inferred if you read it that way that I thought I was technical director and racing driver.

There were two points; one that I’d implied it was my choice, and secondly that I had exposed something that was in-team knowledge. So there were two lessons to be learned, and I had no problem with that; you’re never too old to learn. But it was amazing the way this manifested itself at the end of a dream weekend for the team; a one-two, when they were looking at falling on swords…

I said, “John, I apologise, I shouldn’t have done it,” because it was the easiest way to resolve the situation. It was a lesson: in those circumstances, never answer direct questions and I think that’s something we see very much in F1 nowadays…

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